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Ukraine Set to Criminalize Libel, Serbs Might Get to Choose: Kosovo or the EU

Plus, Polish prisoners help preserve the country’s Jewish heritage and Belarusian students are forced to vote.

by Jeremy Druker, Joshua Boissevain, Ioana Caloianu, and Nino Tsintsadze 20 September 2012

1. Harsh new press bill advances in Ukraine


Members of the opposition and international press organizations are in an uproar over moves in Ukraine to reinstate criminal penalties for defamation. On 18 September, the upper house gave preliminary approval to harsher penalties for those found guilt of defamation, Reuters reports. Critics of the bill, pushed through by deputies from President Viktor Yanukovych's Party of Regions, say the move is designed to muzzle the media ahead of next month's parliamentary elections.


The bill includes hefty fines and sentences of up to five years’ in prison for distributing "deliberately untrustworthy information" that might be regarded as slander or abuse, according to Reuters. Legislators had decriminalized defamation in 2001, and the move to reinstate harsh penalties mirrors recent changes in Russia, where articles criminalizing defamation were restored in July.


Dunja Mijatovic
The bill, which must still pass a second reading and be signed into law by Yanukovych, faced harsh reactions among free press advocates at home and abroad, the BBC reports. Dunja Mijatovic, the OSCE’s point person for media freedom, called on members of parliament to kill the measure. “Criminalizing speech in a modern democracy means stifling debate and protecting public officials from criticism, and can only lead to self-censorship on the part of the media,” she said.


Opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said the bill should be viewed in the context of increasing government control over the media as the parliamentary elections, scheduled for 28 October, approach, according to the BBC. "They already disabled the TVi channel, they pressure journalists and owners of the media, and now we are at the final point where journalists are intimidated with criminal liability for telling the truth about the current government and the president."


2. Serbian official suggests a Kosovo versus EU referendum


For the first time, a senior Serbian official has raised the possibility of a public referendum to decide between recognition for an independent Kosovo or Serbia’s integration into the European Union, Balkan Insight reports. The comments by Deputy Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic have been interpreted as a warning to the EU over the mixed signals emanating from European capitals over whether recognition would be a precondition for EU membership or not.


Earlier this month, Enlargement Commissioner Stefan Fuele said Belgrade must continue normalizing relations with Kosovo but would not have to recognize Kosovo to join the European Union – something that Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic has said Serbia would never do. However, last week, Andreas Schockenhoff of the ruling Christian Democratic Union in Germany appeared to take a much tougher stance. Speaking in Belgrade on 13 September, Schockenhoff outlined seven conditions for EU membership, which included dismantling parallel structures in northern Kosovo and the cessation of the significant funding for that region. Belgrade would also have to sign a binding agreement on good neighborly relations with Kosovo and move forward on various agreements signed with Pristina that have yet to be implemented.


Even though Schockenhoff denied that Serbia would be required to recognize Kosovo before it could enter the EU, many took his comments to indicate that Belgrade could not continue to pursue a simultaneous strategy of accession and keeping Kosovo. According to Balkan Insight, support for joining the EU among Serbian citizen has declined to under 50 percent in a recent survey, continuing a trend from December 2010.


3. Creative efforts in Poland to preserve Jewish and World War II heritage


Polish authorities plan to turn a neglected World War II site into a historical and educational destination, The New York Times writes. Built to serve as Hitler's headquarters on the Eastern Front during the war, the Wolf's Lair is made up of 200 buildings, including bunkers for a military staff of 2,000 people. The buildings survived the war despite attempts by Nazi troops to blow them up. During the communist-era, the complex was open to the public, but efforts to educate visitors were minimal.


The neglect continued after the fall of the Iron Curtain, when the Wolf's Lair was leased by the Polish government to a private company called Wolf's Nest, which opened a hotel and restaurant, organized pottery lessons and paintball sessions, and allowed tourists to take photos wearing Nazi uniforms, while the rest of the site fell into disrepair. Jan Zaluska, the director of Wolf's Nest, blamed the lack of proper management on confusion about ownership of the site that has since been cleared up.


The Polish Culture Ministry decided to prolong the lease of Wolf's Lair only if the company joined in a project that, in the words of participating historian Tomasz Chincinski, would allow visitors to “feel the tragic dimension of the place” as well as educate future generations. The refurbishment plans include the restoration of an outdoor movie theater showing documentaries about the war and the creation of a permanent outdoor exhibition and trails for the exploration of the complex.


The Krakow Post also writes about an initiative of the Polish prison service to involve inmates in the preservation and restoration of Jewish cemeteries. Since 2003, thousands of prisoners have taken part in the Tikkun Project (“tikkun” being the Hebrew word for “reconstruction”) to help clean and restore headstones as well as attend movie screenings, visit exhibits, and tour sites connected to Jewish culture and history.


Tomasz Waclawek, the spokesman for the prison service in Krakow, said prisoners “love this kind of work” and no attempts to escape have been registered.


Initiatives ranging from restoring Jewish cemeteries to creating online resources for descendants of Polish Jews have seen an upsurge in the past couple of years. According to the chief rabbi of Poland, Michael Schudrich, this is because Jewish history “goes to the definition of what is Poland.”


4. Reports in Belarus of forced early voting among students, a site that allows Belarusians to report election violations, has publicized information that indicates that forced early voting for the 23 September parliamentary elections appears to be in full swing. According to a press release from the site, data from the town of Horki suggests that the voting by students at the Belarusian State Agricultural Academy there has been a major reason for the high early voting figures (713 of 1,000 registered voters at one station already on Tuesday).



A video uploaded on the website, which includes an interactive map of violations, appears to show students lined up until they are called one-by-one to vote. Electby says it has received “similar testimonies” from other universities around the country. During the country's past elections, international observers have repeatedly noted such voting practices, which result in inflated numbers for regime candidates and parties. This year the high figures will likely be used to show the purported failure of a movement to boycott the elections.


In related election news, Radio Free Europe reports that a Minsk court has quickly sentenced three opposition activists to jail time that will keep them incarcerated until after the elections. Arrested on 18 September, the three activists from the Tell the Truth movement were charged with illegally organizing a protest calling for a boycott.


5. Russia forgives nearly all of North Korea’s debt


Russia has agreed to forgive nearly 90 percent of North Korea’s $11 billion debt and reinvest the rest, according to Interfax. The two countries signed an agreement 17 September based on negotiations that took place in June, Deputy Finance Minister Sergei Storchak told the news agency.  Moscow and Pyongyang have been trying, without success, to resolve the debt issue for more than two decades.


As part of the deal, the rest of Pyongyang’s debt would be reinvested into the country in the areas of education, health care, development, or energy. Analysts have speculated that Russia wants to enlarge its energy presence in East Asia, especially given the country’s growing trouble with the West.


"The development of the Asia-Pacific region is in our economic interests,” Alexander Vorontsov, a North Korea expert at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told the Guardian. “If before, we talked about our potential to direct our oil and gas there when we needed to strengthen our negotiating position with the Europeans, now there are practical deals.”


Vorontsov also said Russia may be trying to position itself to install a gas pipeline through North Korea to the south.

Jeremy Druker is TOL's executive director and editor in chief. Joshua Boissevain and Ioana Caloianu are TOL editorial assistants. Nino Tsintsadze is a TOL editorial intern.
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